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After the bustle of harvest each fall, the winery cellar goes relatively quiet as the new year arrives. By summertime, even the momentary uproar of the spring bottling season has subsided.
But while the cellar may not be action-packed at the moment, there’s plenty happening underneath the surface—specifically the barrel surface.
At this point, our core 2013 red wines such as Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are halfway through their typical 18-month barrel aging period, and they are quietly transforming from the exuberant roughness of youth into the smoother, fuller richness of maturity.
“Inside the barrel, the wine is changing from grapey, primary simple fruit flavors to something with more depth, nuance and complexity, and the tannins are also softening,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “Much of this maturation comes from microxygenation through the pores of the wood. You can’t see any of this happening with the naked eye, but you can definitely taste it as time goes on.”
Because a small amount of wine evaporates through the wood—a phenomenon known as the Angel’s Share—the barrels are “topped off” with additional wine each month to keep the barrels full. Stewart and Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor also periodically pull representative tasting samples from each lot to ensure that everything is on track.
But beyond that, Stewart likes to simply let the wines work their magic with minimal intervention.
“We try not to move the wine around much,” he says. “We temporarily rack our red wines to tanks after secondary fermentation is finished early in the year, but we put them right back in the barrels and they stay there for a year or more until bottling time. If we do our job and start the wines off well, we can back off and let everything develop at a natural pace.”
In other words, while winemaking is largely a hands-on vocation, there are times when a hands-off approach helps make a better wine.